When Paddy Power met the Pacific Warriors
Rugby Union – invented by the English, dominated by the All Blacks, played everywhere from Neath to Nagoya. But if the ‘game they play in Heaven’ has a spiritual home, it’s in the island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
No, they mightn’t have chalked up much in the way of success, but for a region with a combined population of a little over a million, the depth of talent in the islands is without equal. And if hard-tackling, running rugby is your thing, the princes of the Pacific are the people for you.
James Marquand’s Pacific Warriors is a fitting celebration of rugby in Polynesia and Melanesia. Featuring tributes from such worthy opponents as Jonny Wilkinson, Sir Clive Woodward, Jason Robinson, Serge Betsen and Matt Giteau (to name but a very few), the documentary not only champions the region’s achievements – Fiji are, of course, the kings of sevens rugby – but also points up the incredible odds that face Tongan, Fijian and Samoan players.
These obstacles include a talent pool that starts off small and becomes smaller still when neighbouring superpowers New Zealand and Australia pinch many of the best players – for example, legends like Michael Jones and Frank Bunce represented Samoa before they were capped by the All Blacks.
A shortage of funds has also hampered the island nations, and it’s this that fuels one of Pacific Warriors’ most remarkable anecdotes. Tonga – a country with a population so small, 80% of it could fit into Twickenham – had suffered an appalling run-in to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Things were so bad that the team wound up training in public parks in Greater Manchester.
What they lacked in resources, the Tongans made up for in talent. Epi Taoine (main picture, foreground), who played club rugby for Newcastle Falcons alongside Jonny Wilkinson, was a particularly remarkable specimen, being able to play centre, wing, full-back, flanker, number 8 and lock with equal facility. Standing 6’ 4’’ and weighing in at a little over 18 stones, Taoine was the rock around which Tonga rallied.
And rally they very impressively did. An opening defeat of the USA was followed by a truly titanic match against local rivals Samoa which saw two Tongans sent from the pitch but the Sea Eagles emerge victorious. There then came a game against the Springboks where, had it not been for the bounce of the ball, the eventual winners of the tournament would have been consigned to ignominious defeat.
Next up it was England, and a match which could propel the Tongans into the quarter-finals for the first time in their history. And after months of feeling friendless, the Sea Eagles had found an unlikely ally in the form of Irish gaming company Paddy Power.
As Paddy Power himself explains in Pacific Warriors, “We like to think we’re an entertainment company. We were brainstorming ideas down the pub after a couple of pints when someone came up with the idea to change a rugby players name by deed pole to ‘Paddy Power’, so the commentators would be saying ‘Paddy Power’ every time he got the ball. Genius idea – the one slight flaw is that we had to find someone mad enough to go and do it.”
Enter Epeli Taoine. Having played most of his rugby in Europe, Epi was familiar with the company and with what the injection of cash could do for Tongan rugby. And so it came to pass that this proud son of Polynesia legally changed his name to ‘Paddy Power’.
Naturally, the authorities weren’t impressed. “The International Rugby Board took a bit of a dim view of it,” explains the real Paddy Power. “They wouldn’t accept the name change.”
And so the Tongan First XV could see no way forward other than to dye their hair green.
A rare example of solidarity and commerce colliding, this snap decision would produce an image the Irish bookmaker had a hard time forgetting – “It’s a bizarre moment in my life when I’m standing in a hotel room as a production line of gigantic rugby players sat around in their pants discussing whether to get stripes or spots.”
If the hair-raising stunt – which really should have been codenamed ‘Dye Hard’ – garnered no end of publicity, it again didn’t go down well with the IRB. As Power recalls, “They came to the hotel and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to let you play with green hair. You’ve got to dye it back.’”
So it came to pass that, on the eve of Tonga’s biggest ever game, Epi and his friends were frantically dyeing their hair back to its natural colour. Not that this contributed to their eventual defeat to an England side fired up by the fact that their World Cup future rested on the result. If everything eventually came out in the wash, the Power affair isn’t without a legacy – to this day Epi Taoine is legally known as ‘Paddy Power’.
Entertaining though this story is, it’d be wrong to come away from it thinking that the Tongans are a joke outfit. On the contrary, at the 2011 RWC, they pulled off the greatest upset in the tournament’s history by defeating eventual finalist France. And while the odds remain squarely against the men from the islands, future shocks remain a distinct possibility.
“The sea eagle is famished,” begins the Sipi Tau, the Tongan equivalent of the New Zealand Haka. We’ll see how it feasts over the weeks to come.
Pacific Warriors is available to rent or own digitally or to purchase on DVD from 11th September.